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A Matter of Taste

In a world of fast food, fast fashion and a revolving smorgasbord of visual feasts served up on social media, the notion of what constitutes ‘good taste’ seems elusive given the constantly blurred line between ‘high’ and ‘low’ popular culture. The Hipsters are morphing into Thriftsters; flashy, brand obsessed ‘show’ luxury has evolved into understated ‘know’ luxury; and trends are emerging and being superseded at an increasingly break-neck speed. In an era of pioneers, early adopters, disruptors and influencers, how do we navigate this constant judgment of what is desired, and how do businesses stay ahead of the curve and ultimately drive profits? Taste is defined as ‘the sense of what is fitting, harmonious, or beautiful.’ In sociology, it refers to an individual’s personal and cultural patterns of choice and preference. In the context of culture, it is the perception and enjoyment of what constitutes excellence in the fine arts, literature, design and fashion. One who is appreciative of and sensitive to art and beauty in all its forms is considered an aesthete. One whose judgments about what is good, fashionable and esteemed is a tastemaker, a trend-setter and an influencer. As such, they are usually followed. In today’s social lexicon, this means they have a phenomenal number of followers on their digital platforms where their style and thoughts are rapidly distributed across the globe. Through the ages has been a clear social and cultural context for what constitutes good taste and accepted trends. The concept of aesthetics has been the interest of philosophers such as Plato, Hume and Kant, who understood it to deal with the nature of art, beauty, and taste.  Philosopher Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement (1790) claimed that beauty was not a property of any object, but an aesthetic judgement based on a subjective feeling. Twentieth-century sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu argued against Kantian view of pure aesthetics, stating that the legitimate taste of society is the taste of the ruling class.  This idea was also proposed by German sociologist Georg Simmel (1858–1918), who examined the phenomenon of taste as manifested in rapidly changing patterns of cultural trends.  According to Simmel, taste (whether it be in art, fashion, music or design) is a vehicle for strengthening the unity of the social classes. Members of the upper classes tend to signal their superiority, and they act as the initiators of new trends. He argued that as goods, appearances and manners conceived as high-class status markers are imitated by the middle classes, they lose their function to differentiate. So the upper classes have to originate yet more stylistic innovations in turn perpetuating new trends and cult products. In modern times, there is no dominant class system at play; we have replaced it with a financial hierarchy, and a consumer culture.  Theorists have claimed that the diffusion of mass cultural products has obscured class differences in capitalist societies. Products consumed passively by members of different social classes are virtually all the same, with only superficial differences regarding quality and brand. Today, defining and setting trends is not just about social status, it’s big business. Commercial empires rise and fall by whether the ‘next big thing’ gets traction with the masses or even with a niche market that creates a demand.  One company tapping this zeitgeist of ‘taste’ and engaging a global team of researchers, analysts, visualisers and correspondents to forecast what will be the next big thing in consumer behaviour is LS:N Global. A division of The Future Laboratory, LS:N Global is an insights platform that documents new consumer behaviour and key industry trends to give business professionals the confidence to make informed decisions about the future. Its prime purpose is to use knowledge and insight to equip businesses to become ‘future-proof’ by inspiring new product, service and brand innovations, and helping its clients to harness market trends, understand and adapt to emerging consumer needs, position their business for success and keep them ahead of the competition. Using LS:N Global as the evidence-based yardstick for emerging trends, here are some of the biggest trends that are shaping our world…

FOOD Changing ethical tastes, the return of thrift and a new generation of synth-friendly consumers are just a few of the many drivers kick-starting a revolution in how we create, market and consume food.  ‘Label-gazing’, ‘value redefined’, ‘fooducation’, ‘retro-thrift’, ‘localism’ and ‘comfort binging’ are just a few of the many trends identified by The Future Laboratory in a recent trend and consumer insight report. Value is an ever-increasing concern for consumers, especially in an uncertain economy. But these are not leading to purchases of the cheapest of the cheap. Ethical and environmental concerns remain, meaning that consumers are not willing to sacrifice their new-found food ethics for the sake of a cheap supper.  Along with growing civic concerns over waste, The Future Laboratory heralds that we are entering an era of ‘Nu Thrift’, with wastage of food and packaging becoming as much moral and civic concerns as ethical and environmental ones. In the royal food court, convenience is king. Consumers are increasingly attracted to smaller-format, no-frills stores that stock healthy goods.  In response to this demand, supermarket chains are increasingly offering healthy convenience foods like pre-cut vegetables and dip, or fruit bowls.  And fast-food is taking the form of supermarket pre-cut meal cuts.  Taking this a step further, online food retailers such as Hello Fresh and Marley Spoon send tasty recipes and fresh ingredients directly to your door, making it easy to cook a delicious meal at home.  It satisfies the desire to cook with chef curated recipes, fresh seasonal ingredients and pre-measured portions so there’s zero food waste.

FASHION Fashion designers are no longer relying solely on a pencil and paper to execute a great idea.  Brands are increasingly turning to data analysis to inform their collections and ideally transform them into revenue generators.  As the latest design tool, data is being used to ‘draw’ better decisions on product development and directions in marketing.  Retailers are measuring consumer preferences online and using this data to inform design decisions and combining consumer feedback to influence future collections.  Fashion brands are also drawing on statistics to create campaigns that integrate high-fashion imagery with local insights. Target recently revealed the first collection from its partnership with online fashion magazine Who What Wear, which was designed using editorial data and user feedback from the platform’s community, whilst the Yoox Net-A-Porter Group worked with IBM’s famed Watson supercomputer to personalise its search capabilities.  From Stockholm, new fashion brand Ivyrevel uses algorithms and data analysis to create designs that are tailored to its customers.  “We love that we have such good access to data about our consumers – what they are loving and not loving. You can design and evolve the collection around that as opposed to designing for a retailer,” cited Rag & Bone executive Molly Howard back in 2013. Based upon this knowledge she has since launched La Ligne, the latest apparel company to cut the middlemen out of luxury fashion. From front-row seats, Howard, along with her co-founders saw that consumer demand and the existing dual-season fashion calendar were no longer syncing up. “We don’t have to adhere to the traditional fashion calendar, people want to buy now what they see now and that was key for us: you can buy it today and wear it tomorrow,” she cites referring to her online retail offering.  This insatiable ‘see now, buy now’ demand for the new prompted iconic British brand Burberry to augment an industry first last month.  Their collections were able to be purchased in-store and online immediately after their London Fashion Week catwalk show.  In effect, their show transformed the catwalk into a living store.  Time will tell is this risky caper of manufacturing garments and accessories prior to retail orders will soar. The global call for sustainability is also dictating the world of fashion, championed by cult vegan designer Stella McCartney.

Swiss label Freitag, known for its production of recycled material bags, has ventured into apparel with its own clothing line made from specially developed sustainable fabric.  The hemp and flax-based material is produced within a 2,500km radius of the factory to reduce carbon emissions.  The Opaque But Still Transparent range features pieces made from toxin-free bio-degradable twill denim and thread stitching.  The range, originally conceived for Freitag’s employees, includes garments such as blazers, shirt and tie combinations, and suspender button work trousers.  “Anyone who takes a serious look at the topic of sustainability quickly realises that it has nothing to do with short-term thinking,” says Daniel Freitag, co-founder of Freitag. “I am convinced that [a holistic and long-term] approach is essential for the environment and for society, and that these strategies will also take hold on a wider scale.”

MUSIC Over the past 10 years the music industry has gone through a period of unprecedented radical change. Game-changing developments such as Napster, MySpace, iTunes and Spotify have irreversibly transformed the industry, forcing labels, brands and distributors to rethink strategies in the wake of a new era in music technology.  Today’s consumers are looking for new and innovative digital experiences as well as revived ways of consuming music.  They want to connect with multi-genre-straddling bands and artists in a tactile, democratic and interactive way. At the root of nearly every change that is shaking up the music industry is the decline in record sales since music went digital. To regain traction, bands, brands and labels are increasingly involving fans in the decision-making process, creating a more democratic experience.  Product manager at Sony Music Entertainment, Chris Dempsey, says that dwindling record sales have forced record companies to think about new 360-degree deals with artists.  “The value of music remains strong and its alignment with other forms of art and entertainment has never been more evident,” he says. “From artist and brand partnerships to fan-generated content on apps, games and videos, music continues to have a positive impact on people’s lives.” Also as a result of technology, music is becoming increasingly devoid of genres. Consumers have instant access to thousands of styles of music from anywhere in the world and the technology to mix them together quickly and easily, so a band that sits in a single genre cannot remain relevant.  According to music consultant and DJ Thristian Richards, the world can never return to genre music.  “Genres grow up in areas, and that can’t happen any more with the internet,” he says. “As soon as someone makes something, the world has heard it a week later.  Kids fuse everything now. You can get drum sounds from Haiti, Indian chanting and Mexican pan pipes and fuse them in minutes. You get Goths rapping.  The internet has made all of that possible.”  This is reinforced by London DJ and promoter Simon Rigg. “There is no such thing as genres anymore,” he says.  “There is just music. A genre band could never be big again.  Genres don’t matter to kids any more. The fact there are no record stores means people don’t even look for music in specific sections now.”

POWER TO THE PEOPLE Where trends were once set by the sector elite, increasingly we are seeing the consumers hold the power in the marketplace.  Through our constant YouTubing, googling, ‘liking’ and tweeting, we have become the new tastemakers – proclaiming our new discoveries all over the internet with just a click of the ‘share’ button.  For this reason, many online tools have emerged in the quest to leverage the power of the fans and have their tastes and preferences spread virally across the web.  ‘Tastemaker’ status has been formalised by platforms such as Facebook and Timeout online that recruit “those people in the know whose actions and ideas draw followers” to be online trendsetters. To be successful in this brave new consumer-driven world, the key for any company is to know itself and its audience.  It was once widely held that world-of-mouth referral was the most effective form of promotion for any business.  Now, research shows that social media users are almost as likely to trust influencers as they are their friends, according to a new study between Twitter and analytics firm Annalect The study found that 49% of respondents rely on recommendations from influencers on Twitter, while 56% listen to recommendations from friends on the platform. Around 40% claim to have purchased an item that they have seen being used by an influencer on Instagram, Twitter or YouTube, and 20% have shared something that an influencer has posted. The rise of social media influencers is transforming how brands engage with consumers and is changing the rules for critical success.  Rather than focusing on traditional marketing and advertising, businesses should be focusing on the quality of their product and/or service and devising innovative ways to allow their audience to engage more meaningfully with the brand, to shape its evolution, and to in turn promote this to their sphere of real world and online influence.

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